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How Undocumented Youth Nearly Made Their DREAMs Real in 2010

By the time Felipe Matos got to North Carolina

By the time Felipe Matos got to North Carolina, his 1,500-mile march was nearly over. It was April and he, Gaby Pacheco, Carlos Roa and Juan Rodriguez were set to arrive in D.C. on May 1. They’d walked from Miami, on what they called the Trail of Dreams, to raise awareness about their plight as undocumented students and demand the passage of the DREAM Act.

They’d been walking since the first day of the year, and had already passed through north Florida’s backwater towns and big cities, where anti-immigrant hate crimes were going unreported. They’d long ago confronted the KKK in southern Georgia.

But it was in North Carolina that Matos heard the words he still can’t get out of his mind months later. “‘You’re not completely human,’ a man said. I couldn’t believe it,” Matos recalled this month, still a little incredulous. “The man looked me right in the eye—that was the most astonishing thing.”

Matos, like an estimated two million other American youth, is undocumented. The man’s statements were not new to him, but it was a different thing to feel the hate thrown directly at his face. The interaction is exactly why he, Pacheco, Roa and Rodriguez decided to lace up their shoes and head out the door. “Every time we turn on the TV they call us criminals,” Matos said. “The truth is we’re not aliens. We’re human beings.”

It was a defining moment in a year full of them for the DREAM Act movement, which has seen both historic victory and bitter defeat this year. The House passed the bill on Dec. 8, but it failed to break a Republican filibuster in the Senate this weekend. The House victory marked the first time the bill, which provides undocumented youth a pathway to citizenship if they commit two years to higher education or the military, had made it through any chamber of Congress despite being in existence for nearly a decade.

That the DREAM Act made it as far as it did in 2010 is a testament to a national, youth-led grassroots movement that has waged a remarkable campaign on its behalf since Barack Obama’s election. Mainstream news media has spent much of the past two years hailing the arrival of the tea party’s populism, which has turned out to be the work of a handful of rich and powerful players. But people looking for proof of a real grassroots effort—a decentralized, inclusive, aggressive movement that delivers results and will not be ignored—need look no further than the DREAMers, as the undocumented immigrant youth activists are often called, who stormed Capitol Hill and mobilized the immigrant rights community to win its first major legislative victory in decades.

New Strategies, New Risks

It’s been a narrative-driven campaign, a movement to change people’s minds about immigrants through real people’s stories. That, coupled with a lineup of old-school activism—marches, hunger strikes, sit-ins and civil disobedience—has made them a force to be reckoned with.

“We are going to put so much pressure on every single senator that is standing between ourselves and our dreams,” Carlos Saavedra, a DREAM activist with United We DREAM, a national network of over 40 youth-led immigrant rights organizations, promised in the run up to the Senate vote. “Every single one is going to feel an immense amount of pressure.”

True to his word, DREAM Act supporters delivered at least 77,000 phone calls in one day to senators urging them to pass the bill, according to Rosario Lopez, who coordinates national phone banking operations for the DREAM Act. There are an estimated two million undocumented youth in the country. Earlier this year the Migration Policy Institute estimated the bill could benefit as many as 850,000 of them.

Activists like Saavedra and Lopez didn’t just have the year’s profound anti-immigrant fervor to confront. They also met real resistance from many Beltway immigration reform advocates who for years have been dedicated to a “comprehensive” reform strategy. The prevailing wisdom among key legislators—and now in the Obama administration—has long been that if supporters give away the easiest pieces of immigration reform—stuff like the DREAM Act, which benefits a sympathetic group of undocumented immigrants—it’ll be much harder to open citizenship avenues for the remaining millions of undocumented immigrants in the country.

At the year’s outset, that strategy remained ascendant on Capitol Hill, despite the fact that it seemed a long shot that Congress would take up a comprehensive bill any time soon. President Obama threw the immigrant community an infamous 38 measly words in his State of the Union speech. And May 1—an unofficial deadline immigrant rights advocates had set for Obama to deliver reform—came and went with little action.

“I think it was around the beginning of the year when I realized comprehensive immigration reform wasn’t going to happen,” said Reyna Wences, who organizes in Chicago with the Immigrant Youth Justice League. DREAMers all over the country were coming to that same realization, and knew they had little time to move on any immigration bill this year.

“Everyone was talking more about enforcement than supporting immigrants’ rights and it was about that time that SB 1070 came out and the conversations started to evolve. We knew CIR”—the shorthand for comprehensive immigration reform—“would just further criminalize our families.” Not only that, it wasn’t moving anywhere.

So DREAMers set about wrestling the DREAM Act away from the comprehensive framework.

On May 18, four undocumented youth—Tania Unzueta, Lizbeth Mateo, Yahaira Carrillo and Mohammad Abdollahi—and one ally—Raúl Alcaraz, a resident with papers—became the first DREAMers to risk arrest and deportation for the bill when they staged a sit-in at Arizona Sen. John McCain’s Tucson offices. “We were asking McCain to come back around again for the DREAM Act, to support the rights of undocumented youth,” said Abdollahi. McCain cosponsored previous versions of the DREAM Act. He didn’t budge that day, but neither did the DREAMers.

They were arrested and charged with a misdemeanor, criminal trespass. Their actions triggered deportation proceedings.

“The calculated risk is that I could have technically been detained driving or doing anything,” said Abdollahi, who lives in Michigan and is a cofounder of “But ICE and immigration organizations can’t think they can hold our status over our heads. We are taking ownership of the same fears that are going to exist no matter what.”

So far, the gamble has paid off. While Abdollahi, Mateo and Carrillo all face deportation, many DREAMers who’ve gone public with their stories have so far been able to stay in the country unharmed. Tania Unzueta came out of the office at the last moment to serve as a spokesperson for the rest. Abdollahi, Mateo and Carrillo were released by ICE and must return to Arizona every two months to check in with an ICE officer, but have not been given a court date for their removal proceedings.

“For us it just shows that once you challenge the system, instead of them always picking on us, so to speak, once you challenge them they don’t know what to do with it,” Abdollahi said. Abdollahi says their criminal charges are still pending.

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By coming forward, they’ve also highlighted the contradictions in the Obama administration’s deportation policies. The administration supports the DREAM Act, but has said it will not stop deporting people, even those who would otherwise be DREAM Act-eligible. Indeed, it continues to deport many DREAM Act-eligible youth.

“If you think about what people are doing, trying to put a public face on their suffering, and at the same time we have members getting deported, it can make you cry,” said Matias Ramos, a founding member of United We DREAM. “It’s a tragic story.”

Coming Out as Undocumented

Since that first sit-in, DREAMers have followed it with a slew of others. Getting arrested is now something of a rite of passage. DREAM Act supporters shut down Wilshire Blvd., a busy Los Angeles intersection, on May 20 with a sit-in. They plopped down in the center of the street, arms linked in a circle and demanded Sen. Dianne Feinstein push the DREAM Act as a stand alone bill. Twenty undocumented youth were arrested for staging a sit-in in the atrium of the Hart Senate building on July 20. DREAMers in Kentucky, Minnesota, North Carolina and Texas have staged hunger strikes. Texas DREAMer Lucy Martinez ended her hunger strike after 30 days when the House passed the DREAM Act. She was one of twelve who started the strike to gain the attention of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who supported the filibuster on Saturday.

And they’ve targeted Democrats, too, when things aren’t moving fast enough—including staunch congressional allies. The same day of the Hart building sit-in, five DREAMers staged a sit-in in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s offices. Days later they released a recording of a phone call between Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez and the DREAMers in which Gutierrez chastised them for their confrontational tactics. DREAMers used the phone call as proof that Gutierrez and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus were holding up the DREAM Act. Gutierrez ultimately helped whip the bill through the House.

They then followed Reid back home to Nevada a week later. Four DREAM Act activists initiated a silent protest during Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s address at the Netroots Nation conference. Ramos, Prerna Lal, Carrillo (who also took part in the McCain sit-in) and Lizbeth Mateo rose from their seats wearing the DREAMers’ trademark graduation gowns and mortarboards and stared Reid down as he told the crowd that he would not move the DREAM Act unless he had 60 votes to secure its passage.

In the end Reid in fact moved the bill, but he didn’t have 60 votes. The DREAM Act had only 55, and therefore couldn’t clear a motion for cloture that would have ended debate on the bill and cleared the way for an up or down vote. It was a loss everyone saw coming.

“I knew it was going to be a tough vote,” said Lopez, the phone banking operations coordinator, after Saturday’s Senate vote. “I felt angry and I felt frustration. I have a lot of hope, but I was getting ready for it not to pass.”

Where the movement will go from here remains to be seen, but it has helped push a cultural shift within immigrant communities that may have a lasting effect. “In the past, many people maybe only used their middle names when talking to the press,” said Matias Ramos, who participated in the silent protest at Netroots Nation. “Or it was only people already facing deportation who came forward. I think it’s this year that the story telling, the testimonies, have become the center and focus of the actions.”

For many Americans, undocumented immigrants remain a shadow community, a scary abstraction and jumble of fearful stereotypes—job stealers, anchor babies, phantoms living among us. DREAMers demand to be seen, demand to be recognized.

“It was a huge breakthrough,” said Felipe Matos, the DREAMer from Florida, recalling the first time he publicly announced that he was undocumented. He and 50 others marched from Miami Dade College to the downtown Miami Homeland Security offices in the summer of 2008, masking tape over their mouths, “Undocumented?” emblazoned on their chests.

When they got to Homeland Security, officers came down, guns drawn and ready to protect the building from the assembled unarmed protesters. No one was arrested or detained, but neither did Matos and the others hide. After the protest was over they walked home exhilarated and emboldened.

“Just the sense that I can embrace my struggle in a very public way and I don’t have to be scared,” said Matos.

A statewide movement was born. After that day the Florida youth rolled out a map of the state and drew lines around the regions where they knew they needed to build their base, and got to work organizing the state, slowly working their way from the big college campuses like Florida State University and University of Florida in Gainesville, and then moving down through central Florida and into the ultra-conservative cities along the southwest coast of the state.

Matos’ story is typical. Many DREAMers tell of becoming politicized after facing barriers to getting their education or through fighting to stop the deportation of a local community member. After finding a handful of other young people in the same boat as them, they organize a support group at first, just to share their stories in a safe space. Soon, support groups initiate an organizing arm starting with a local action, which leads to more organizing and, eventually, connection with the national movement. Abdollahi said he and other organizers registered for the domain a month after the DREAM Act failed a Senate vote in October 2007. The United We DREAM national network was formed July 2009.

Much of the work happens late at night, aided by Twitter and Facebook and Gchat, after classes are over and jobs left for the day.

On March 10, eight undocumented youth from the Immigrant Youth Justice League in Chicago reprised Florida’s 2008 action when they marched alongside 300 supporters from Chicago’s Union Park to the downtown Homeland Security headquarters. They set up a stage and one by one, each came forward and told their stories in front of the enforcement agency that’s responsible for deporting them.

“We were claiming our space, saying we are undocumented, and we are not afraid,” said Reyna Wences. Like Matos in Florida, Wences said that even though the protest was meant primarily to send a public message, it was liberating for herself.

“There was something about actually coming out and saying it in front of the immigration offices that was so powerful,” Wences said.

Wences and the other Chicago youth were joined by DREAMers all around the country. They called March 10 the National Coming Out of the Shadows Day, an idea they borrowed from the LGBT rights movement, and coordinated a series of actions whose primary intent was to humanize the immigrant community.

The movement has been one of gutsy defiance, but also one fueled by desperate rage. Today’s generation of immigrant youth has grown up with constant promises of comprehensive reform—dating back as far as the mid-1990s—and has simultaneously watched friends and family members get deported as removal numbers climb higher each year.

“We do this for all immigrant communities, not just DREAMers,” said Lopez. “There are people that don’t qualify for the DREAM Act, and they deserve to be in this country.”

“The more public you are, the safer you are,” said Isabel Castillo, a DREAMer from Harrisonburg, Va., who organized Dream Activist Virginia in October 2009. Within five months she and a small group of organizers gathered 1,000 signatures and the support of 30 local businesses on behalf of a city council resolution backing the DREAM Act. The Harrisonburg City Council passed it unanimously. But not before Castillo told them her story—of coming to the country when she was six with her parents, of growing up in the town and graduating from high school with a 4.0 GPA, and then being locked out of many schools because she was undocumented and could not afford the out-of-state tuition or qualify for financial aid.

“Each time a voice gets raised, it gets noticed by other people,” Ramos says. “I know many people as very public leaders who when I first started working with them would never in their lives have convinced themselves they could do such a thing.”

“It makes a difference in every instance.”

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